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The dark side of Christmas

13 December 2011

The dark side of Christmas

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Christmas is usually a joyous occasion, but it can be an incredibly difficult time for some people, who might need a bit of extra help from their employer. 

When you think of the causes of lost productivity over the Christmas period, employees extending their lunch hour to do Christmas shopping and extra long water cooler conversations, about what really happened after the office party, are some of the things that spring to mind.

While such distractions can be easily managed by reminding everyone of their obligations to work, getting managers to set a good example and calling the first person that takes a three hour lunch break to account, much more difficult to manage is the huge lull in productivity that results when someone starts to become emotionally distressed by personal challenges brought into worrying focus in the run up to Christmas.

Perhaps it’s their first year without a loved one after a particularly painful bereavement, divorce or break-up. Maybe they can’t afford to give their family the Christmas they want to after a spouse was made redundant. They could even be in the midst of yet another row, because of the decision to spend, or not to spend, the festive season with the in-laws. Whatever the reason, the pressure we all put on ourselves to have a perfect Christmas can, and certainly does, cause some people who might have been just about coping to suddenly feel overwhelmed and distressed.

At best this can result in them becoming downcast, withdrawn and unproductive. At worst it can spiral into a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, prompting them to withdraw themselves from the workplace and call in sick until the whole thing is over, by which time they might find themselves feeling so hopeless they struggle to return to work at all.

Exaggerated as this scenario might seem, in the course of providing support to employees over Christmas, we see it played out across organisations large and small, year after year. Yet just a little additional support from work is often all it takes to not only keep someone present and productive but also protect their emotional wellbeing.

Supporting vulnerable employees

If you know of someone who’s experienced a difficult change in personal circumstances during the year, such as a divorce or a parent going into care, take them aside and tell them, in an empathetic and caring way, that you realise Christmas might be a bit more difficult for them this year, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help? This might be as simple as allowing them come into work later in the morning if they need extra time to pull themselves together before facing the world.

More often than not, just knowing that their boss cares and wants them to be okay can be hugely reassuring in itself. Having the opportunity to talk things through with someone and getting an external perspective on how to deal with their first Christmas alone, for example, can be very helpful.

In the event that you or their line manager doesn’t feel comfortable offering specific advice, it’s still important to ask them how they’re doing and offer support, even if that’s just reminding them about the Employee Assistance Programme and encouraging them to chat with one of the counselors or specialists experts. If you’re aware that an employee is worried about debts being racked up over Christmas, or their prospects in the new year if a spouse is being made redundant or giving up work to focus on the family, explain how they could benefit immensely from having an upfront chat with one of the money advisors before those concerns come home to roost. Do reassure them that any discussion would be absolutely confidential, and that neither you, nor anyone else in the organisation, would even be made aware of the call itself, much less the actual detail.

Whether you feel able to support an affected individual yourself or think it best to direct them towards appropriate third party support, the important thing is to cut them a bit of slack if they need it, and maintain an open dialogue so that people feel able to tell you if they’re not coping – especially if they’re surrounded by well-meaning but high-spirited colleagues. Most of all, it’s simply about you showing the human face of people management. After all, if you can’t show your caring side at Christmas, when can you?